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Independent living and disability: an open letter to Laura Flanders

Dear Laura Flanders

I am on the whole a great fan of your show, but I do want to share with you some misgivings about your Special Report: 'Ableism Out, Independent Living Now!' As a parent of an autistic adult child with severe developmental disabilities, disability is an issue about which I have something to say.

Disability comes in many forms and degrees. I am sure there are many disabled people for whom independent living is wholly beneficial. There are also many people who are labeled and treated as disabled but in fact are not. However, there are also many people whose severe disabilities make independent living dangerous, whose need is not for independence but for skilled and loving care. For them 'independence' is not a boon but deprivation of the care and protection that they desperately need.

I am referring in particular to people with severe intellectual disabilities -- people who have been living long enough to be classified as adults but still have the mind of a child and therefore need the same care and protection that we give (or should give) children. For example, our daughter is 32 years old but she still has the mind of a two-year-old toddler. Left to her own devices, she would eat all sorts of dangerous substances, including raw meat and her own shit, or turn on the oven and burn herself, or go outside and get run over by traffic. And there are others whose intellectual disability is even more severe.

Even those whose intellectual disability is somewhat less severe and who can cope with the daily routine of independent living may be in mortal peril. Like you I come from Britain, so let me cite an article from the British press. Rachel Williams (Society Guardian, July 14, 2010) discusses the 'far from rare' phenomenon of 'mate crime' -- the financial, physical, and sexual abuse of disabled individuals living 'in the community' (what community?) by people posing as their friends. She tells the story of Steven Hoskin, 38 years old but with the mind of perhaps an 8-year-old. For over a year his 'friends' had 'taken his money, treated him as their slave and made him wear his own dog's collar and lead. Eventually, having forced him to swallow 70 painkillers, they took him to the top of a railway viaduct and made him hang from the railings as one member of the gang, a girl aged 16, stamped on his hands until he fell 30 metres to his death.' 

None of the people whom you interviewed has any serious intellectual disability. That is obvious from their fluent speech, complex sentences, reasoned arguments, and use of abstract concepts. The truly intellectually disabled can never be 'activists' or 'entrepreneurs', nor can they hold forth on 'ableism' and 'intersectionality'. 

I would have no objection to a campaign for independent living if care were taken to specify the range of people who can benefit from such arrangements, if it were acknowledged that independent living is not suitable for everyone. Unfortunately, people like those you interviewed often claim to speak on behalf of all disabled people, implicitly denying the very existence of people with severe intellectual disabilities and others requiring care and protection.

Respectfully yours

Stephen D. Shenfield

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